This is a sad book about sad food. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is about food and family and nothing in particular, tinted with unwanted gifts and unfulfilled desires and an underlying sense of helplessness. Bender uses food to convey a myriad of emotions in this coming-of-age story, and the interesting premise and subtle feels-worthy moments make this a unique read.
Rose Edelstein first tasted her mother’s despair in the lemon-chocolate cake she made for Rose’s ninth birthday. From that day onwards, Rose avoids eating homemade food as much as she can, preferring the taste of factory-prepared, processed food rather than the taste of frustration and sadness from her seemingly happy mother’s cooking. As Rose grows up, she discovers – with and without her ability to taste emotions – shocking truths about her mom, dad, and older brother, and realizes what the true ties of family really mean.
The Edelsteins seem like a typical family from the beginning, with ups and downs and with things that they keep from each other. Rose’s new “gift” is her defining trait from when she was eight until well into her twenties at the end of the book, and that, in addition to her quiet personality, made her more like a camera in my mind: one that captured and observed everyone around her.
The best way I can describe it is just that my father was a fairly focused man, a smart one with a core of simplicity who had ended up with three highly complicated people sharing the household with him: a wife who seemed raw with loneliness, a son whose gaze was so unsettling people had to shove cereal boxes at him to get a break, and a daughter who couldn’t even eat a regular school lunch without having to take a fifteen-minute walk to recover. Who were these people? I felt for my dad, sometimes, when we’d be watching the TV dramas together, and I could see how he might long for the simple life in the commercials, and how he, more than any of us, had had a shot at that life.
Rose’s ability to taste emotions of people who make the food she eats sounded awesome to me before I picked up The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but soon I realized that for her, it was a nightmare. Her family looks average from the outside, with her easily-excitable-and-willing-to-try-new-things mom, her hard-at-work dad who feels more like a guest than a father, and her brother Joseph who is a genius and who rarely shows her any affection. So when Rose knows their secrets and their not-so-typical emotions, it’s devastating. Can you imagine if she tastes her own cooking?
I was working to find, in every new setting, something filling, and my whole daily world had become consumed by it. And, day in and day out, I had been faking enjoying eating at home, through the weekly gaps and silences between my parents, through my mother’s bright and sleepless eyes, and for whatever reason, for that one time, I could not possibly pretend I liked her pie.
And really, in the end it all comes down to the family. Rose has no real close friends and drifts through the majority of her life with no real goals and desires – just a simple wish that she never has to eat her family’s cooking ever again. Bender’s writing is simplistic but abstract at times, with many things left unsaid and many open endings. Despite the drifty plotline, the relationships within the family are built intricately upon subtle gestures and conversations, and it’s beautiful how Rose’s attention to her parents and her brother shows how much she loves them and how much she’s cared for in return; I think those emotions make up the heart of this story.
The Particulate Sadness of Lemon Cake is a somewhat artsy and abstract read. It says it’s about a girl who can taste emotions in food, but it’s really about familial relationships and the seemingly mundane moments in life, with just a dash of the supernatural. If you like coming-of-age books that drift without much climax (like Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles), you might like this one too.